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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Silence Can Be Deadly

Creating a safe space for mental health conversations in the workplace

Gord Menelaws

Reprinted from the "Workplace: Disclosure and Accommodations" issue of Visions Journal, 2018, 13 (4), p. 27

I’ve heard it said often that talking goes both ways—meaning that you can’t have a conversation unless both people are participating. When it comes to addressing mental health issues in the workplace, the same goes for silence: “silence goes both ways.” In other words, if someone is suffering but stays silent, or if someone notices that someone is suffering but stays silent, the results are the same—and they can be deadly.

Staying silent about mental health struggles—whether you are the person experiencing them or the person observing them—can exacerbate the individual’s health problems and compromise the safety and security of the workplace.

When I decided to become a workplace trainer for the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), I did so because I knew there was a need to help frontline supervisors and managers in various fields open up conversations about mental health with their employees. When I experienced my own mental health struggles, my supervisor (at a company in the natural resources sector) found it challenging to deal with the issue. He really wanted to help me, but he didn’t have the right words and didn’t know what actions to take. The problems in the workplace got worse—for me, for my co-workers and for my supervisor—as the days dragged on and I didn’t get the support I needed.

Years later, when I was given the opportunity to help supervisors and managers address mental health issues in the workplace through training—including the negative effects of stigma and the importance of open discussion and resources—I jumped at it. I hoped that my own story would help as part of the total training package—and so far, it has.

Mental health conversations in unexpected places

People in what we refer to as “heavy industry” are sometimes viewed as a tough bunch. We don’t generally think of diamond miners, smelter workers, sawmill employees or pulp and paper workers as the type to open up to a co-worker or a supervisor if they are struggling emotionally or psychologically. Supervisors in these types of industries say they have difficult conversations with their employees on a daily basis—but not usually about mental health.

That is why CMHA’s Safe and Sound training session is so valuable. The program gives supervisors more tools to use when dealing with mental health issues in the workplace. It helps them to recognize the signs that an employee may be struggling, ask the right questions in the right way, suggest avenues of support and provide helpful resources.

When I lead a session as a workplace trainer, I often use the analogy of an acute medical emergency to encourage group members to think of suitable responses to a colleague’s mental health challenges. I’ll say something like “If you were to see someone having a heart attack or chest pains, would you turn and walk the other way? I would hope not. You would do everything in your power to help that person. The same applies when someone may be struggling with mental health issues. We cannot turn our backs on them. It is up to us to step up to the plate and help those in need.”

I remember at one particular session I led, there was not a soul in the room at the scheduled start time. I looked out the door, and the entire group was out in the hallway. Nobody wanted to make the first move to enter the room. Once we got them inside, the session was painfully silent.

And then it happened: one supervisor was brave enough to tell his story. He talked about his own struggles and how he was dealing with them, and how that had enabled him to see his crew differently and to talk to them differently about the subject of mental health in the workplace.

That was all it took. With his story, the silence was broken. Suddenly, the room was at ease.  Before long, a number of people were contributing to the conversation and sharing their own stories. There were tears and there were smiles as group members opened up to each other and began engaging in those tough conversations.

But as we continued to run sessions for supervisors and joint health and safety committees, it became clear that there was also a need for a shorter session for workers on the front line. Supervisors wanted to see more than supervisors looking out for their workers; they wanted to see their workers looking out for each other. This led to the development of the 45-minute Safe and Sound “crew talk.” In my mind, the crew talk has made an even bigger impact than the supervisors’ session. It has given me the opportunity to talk to over 1000 other workers just like me and share my own story.

When I experienced mental health issues, I was isolated—not because my co-workers didn’t care, but because when they saw the change in my behaviour, they didn’t know what to do. They walked the other way out of fear of saying the wrong thing or getting the wrong reaction. In the crew talk sessions, I focus on the fact that if this situation could happen to me, it could happen to anybody. We all have an obligation to support each other.

Workplace as safe space

Making the workplace a safe space for conversation is the key. There will always be barriers and hurdles to overcome. Some people lack trust; they don’t want to talk about their problems with a colleague or a supervisor. Many people are nervous about what happens after they have that conversation. Will they be treated differently? Will they feel like they now have a target on their backs? Will they lose their jobs if they talk about what’s going on? Will they have to go on sick leave?

But it’s important to focus on actively making the workplace a space that encourages talk, even if individuals still struggle with the idea of sharing their personal stories. The best training sessions are the ones where the supervisor sits in the room with the crew and makes a commitment to help his or her crew members if any one of them is in need. That is what inspires crew members with the confidence to come forward.

In my own work as a trainer and as a colleague and peer, I encourage that idea of safe space in a few different ways. First, I always make time for everyone—whether that means staying to talk to someone privately after a training session, or making sure that my door is always open to chat. And I don’t limit that safe space to the work environment. I encourage people to think of any place as potentially safe to talk about mental health issues. It’s my job as a trainer and as a peer to create that feeling of safe space—whether it’s the safe space of my office or the “safe space” of the telephone when someone needs to talk. Creating that safe space is what provides the opportunity for people to break the deadly silence.

I also create that safe space by openly sharing my own experiences with mental health struggles. For the most part, I have found that most people want to talk to someone with lived experience. They want to tell their own story of struggle and recovery, but they also want to feel as if their experience is shared by others.

Finally, it’s important to make time to listen. No matter what the story involves or where you are, show the person you care, and openly state your commitment to help in any way you can.

Taking the first step

I really didn’t know what to expect when I began the CMHA training program. I knew I was willing to tell my story, and I hoped others would be willing to tell theirs. But it wasn’t so simple: not everyone is as willing to share their experiences. For the most part, the stigma around mental illness is so strong that people just don’t want to share their personal stories.

As a trainer, I have also learned that each CMHA workplace session is unique. Some are emotional, filled with personal stories of struggle and recovery—from employees, their co-workers and their families. Some are quieter, with less personal sharing. I’ve learned to respond to the natural flow of the session and be prepared for anything.

But one thing is clear: when we end the silence and open up the space for conversations about mental health, the workplace—and the world—will be a better place.

About the author

Gord is a workplace trainer with the Canadian Mental Health Association’s BC Division and a health and wellness consultant for several companies in BC. He has long worked in the natural resources sector and was Health and Safety Chair of United Steelworkers (Canada) for 19 years. He lives in the Kootenays

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